Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall, 1753
No painting better suggests than does this example the social power of the Virginia dynasties and the high demands that they placed on their prominent scions. Robert Carter III (1728–1804) was the namesake of the first Robert Carter (1663–1732), a dynasty-founder so influential and wealthy that contemporaries called him "King." At mid-century the grandson was sent to London to observe the ways of society. In this painting commissioned from Thomas Hudson, perhaps England's finest portraitist at the time, Carter is dressed for a masquerade ball in a "Van Dyck" costume from a century earlier. He holds a mask in his left hand as if he has just removed it. In fact, this "unmasking" reveals a more subtle mask beneath. If we can believe his cousin, John Page, the future governor, the sojourn in London left Carter "inconceivably illiterate, and also corrupted and vicious."
Following his return to Virginia, Carter in time repudiated the major institutions of colonial gentry society. Although he served for more than a decade on the governor's council, he abruptly retired in 1772 to Nomini Hall, his father's plantation on the Potomac River. In 1778 he deserted the Anglican church, becoming a Baptist. Though on occasion Carter defended slavery, he eventually freed his nearly 500 slaves. He gave up his life as a planter, escaping to Baltimore, where he became a Swedenborgian disciple. Carter's story proves a point: the search for identity by the heirs of the Virginia gentry was difficult in a frontier society that had been created as an attempt to mirror the life led by aristocrats in Great Britain.